Nobody enjoys receiving annoying automated “robocalls” or negative campaign mailers every time an election rolls around. Imagine if those same voters had to foot the bill for the overwhelming barrage of unwanted political solicitations through taxpayer-funded campaigns. Estimates of the impact to taxpayers ranges from $125 million to more than $300 million per election cycle.
That is money that could be better spent on schools, roads, bridges, public protection, or reduced taxes.
The proponents of public funding offer it as a panacea for addressing corruption and a way to invigorate democracy.
New York City has had public funding since 1988 and based on that experience, public funding misses the mark.
Public funding has done little to curb corruption; instead it has proven to be a new source of misdeeds. For example, last year, one New York City Council member was indicted for appropriating $11,500 in public matching funds through a shell company and a nonprofit that he controlled. Some of the taxpayer money that he siphoned off went to the purchase of a $750 Louis Vuitton handbag.
If voter turnout is a measure of a democracy’s strength, then public funding has failed that test as well. In the most recent New York City mayoral election, a record low 24 percent of registered voters participated. Barely 1 million of the 4.3 million registered voters cast a ballot in a city of nearly 8.5 million people.
Worse yet, taxpayer funded campaigns have not resulted in more competitive elections. Out of 51 New York City council general election races in 2013, only one was considered competitive. In 2009 races, only two general election races were considered competitive.
Some of the strongest voices in support of public funding are public employee unions, which are also advocating ”reforms” that would significantly limit the voice of business in the political process by reducing business contributions from the current $5,000 per candidate limit to $1,000. The largest single source of campaign spending has been labor organizations and in particular, public employee unions. These proposals do nothing to limit those contributions.
Public employee union political contributions in the election process should be of particular concern to the public. As Victor Gotbaum, a former leader of District Council 37 of the AFSCME in New York City once boasted: “We have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss.”
There are better approaches to reform. For example, the State Constitution should be amended to allow four-year legislative terms as a means to reduce the permanent campaign cycle and the seemingly endless cycle of fundraising.
Such a reform would produce real change without burdening taxpayers with additional government spending or unreasonably limiting political speech in the name of reform.